Renewable Energy Cooperatives

6222_logo1Gatineau         George Brown is the Ottawa ACORN pro bono lawyer, which is how I came to meet him and find myself in an interesting chat on a wide range of subjects in the lobby of the Best Western hotel in Gatineau across the river from the national capital in Ottawa in the shadow of Parliament Hill.  George is of course much more than a general in ACORN’s volunteer army.  He is also a former city councilor in Ottawa and the nominee of the New Democratic Party in the federal election in south Ottawa against a longtime incumbent.  He has been a key architect in putting together teams of law students to represent our members in the housing tribunal mediating disputes between landlords and tenants. Having said all of that it turned out that he has been a veteran of numerous microfinance, social enterprise, and cooperative endeavors both as an attorney and as a sparkplug.  He caught my attention, given my recent dip into the energy and power wars between coal and renewable energy sources, by telling me about the Ottawa Renewable Energy Cooperative or OREC, where he had helped do the legal work on a number of their projects.

OREC hasn’t been around but a couple of years and its cluster of projects are therefore still modest in scale but its basic organizing and business model is fascinating and speaks to great success to come.  First, it’s a cooperative, meaning that individual members own the operation and democratically are empowered to govern the business through their elected board and employed staff.  Each share costs $100 and the only qualifications are pretty much an Ottawa address and being over 16 years old.  Secondly, you also have the opportunity to invest in their projects as they come on the drawing board and ripen for financing.  The minimum investment is essentially $2500 with a lifetime limit of $100,000 to keep everyone on an even keel, because this is a good deal.  Thanks to a piece of provincial legislation in Ontario the local electric utility, or hydro as they call it in Ottawa, has to purchase 20 years’ worth of the electricity generated through such renewable projects at a set rate per kilowatt hour that pretty much guarantees the investor a 5% dividend yield for the first five years and then larger participation shares through the 20-year term of the investment.  Since the numbers are based on firm contracts the yield is certain, though by law they can’t formally “guarantee” the rate in case hell freezes over, which is becoming more unlikely every day with climate change.  No surprise that the cooperative was able to raise $3.5 million in its offerings so far.  Sweet!  The only surprise is that they only have about 150 members so far on their 500 member goal.  I’m shocked they don’t have lines in front of their door!

And, what do they do with that money?  They lease for a 20-year term land or roof space for their solar panels.  Many of their leases are with nonprofit or cooperative housing developments in Ottawa who are mission driven as well and love the fact that they are helping produce their own electricity.  Here’s what they say:

OREC currently has 7 solar rooftop projects, including five 10 kilowatt (kW) solar power projects on the rooftops of non-profit or co-op housing buildings across Ottawa, a 75 kW project on the roof of Samuel Genest School, and 50% of a 250kW solar rooftop project on a storage facility in the Dunrobin area. We lease roof space from the respective property owners for the solar systems and our investors benefit from the revenue received from the sale of power.

George is right.  OREC’s model – and of course the law that allows it! – are dynamite opportunities.  These are the kinds of ideas that we need to spread, and try for ourselves as well!

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Dick Gaughan “Handful of Earth”

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